On a June morning in 1956 in my tiny town in New York’s North Country, Mrs. Ryan’s kindergarten class was preparing for our upcoming graduation. Parents had gotten invitations; our caps and gowns were on order. We  had practiced the songs and poems we were to sing together. In my eyes, a few fortunate children had solos. 

Marilyn, the pinch hitter, takes a turn at tunes for shul services.

Eager, But For What?
Two days before the morning event, one of my classmates announced to Mrs. Ryan that she didn’t want to recite the poem that  she had been assigned. The teacher asked if anyone else would like to do it. 

My hand shot up like a rocket. “Me! Me!” I shouted from my chair.

For the next two days, my mother patiently worked with me to memorize the piece. I honestly don’t remember the name of the poem or the words, but the short verse talked about being “little” and “big” and growing up. (If any of you have a copy of this poem, please send it my way!)

Wrong Lesson
That graduation morning, our class, donned in white caps and gowns, marched into the Keeseville Central School auditorium. We recited the pledge of allegiance and sang some songs. It was soon time for my big moment.  I walked to the center of the stage, recited half the poem, and then  —gulp!— forgot the rest. The principal, Edward Long, gracefully ended my performance. But I never forgot my first time on stage and how I blew it.

Recently, I felt that I was reliving my first public performance of 66 years ago. I had volunteered again to fill-in and had only a mere 48 hours to learn my part.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah, Larry and I had run into Susan and Jonathan Shopiro, fellow members of our Congregation Shalom Aleichem. Both are talented musicians, they both have sung in both secular and synagogue choirs. Jonathan, a competent flute player, had regularly played with our previous rabbi at our congregation’s services. Susan is an accomplished violinist who recently inherited her grandfather’s fine century old violin. 

Practice Makes Perfect?
In the course of our conversation that afternoon, I shared with them how I had recently reconnected with my piano playing after almost a year of a shuttered keyboard. What had not felt right during the pandemic felt almost necessary for me now that we were in the “New Normal.” Despite several years of lessons and countless hours of practice on the Yamaha upright that we had purchased in 1982, I have never considered myself as an accomplished pianist. But now I was enjoying playing again.

As Larry and I were driving home from the beach the Friday night before Rosh Hashanah, we got a phone call from Jonathan. 

Pinch Hitter Again
Did you see the e-mail about Rosh Hashanah services?” he asked. 

“No, we have been on the beach all day. What is happening?”

Our rabbis wife serves as our cantor. Sadly, her father had passed away the previous day, and she needed to fly to Long Island to be with her family. Marilyn Glaser, our congregation’s president, asked the Shopiros to step-in to provide the music in her place. Remembering our recent conversation, but obviously ignoring my personal assessment of my skill level, Jonathan asked me if I would be interested in accompanying him on the piano. 

Ain’t No Stopping Her
Larry quickly weighed in, “I think she needs to pass on this,” he told Jonathan on our car’s speakerphone. “She does not play in public.”

With the same bravado I had demonstrated at my kindergarten graduation, I ignored my husband’s words and plowed ahead. “E-mail the music to me,” I told Jonathan, adding, “I’ll look it over and call you later.”

Once we got home, I printed out familiar songs that I recognized from my years of synagogue attendance: “Ki Mitziyon,” “Rommu,” “Shalom Rav,” “Avinu Malkeinu,” and Debbie Friedman’s beautiful rendition of the “Mi Shebeirach” prayer. Most of the sheet music consisted of just the melody line. 

Never mind that despite years of childhood lessons, I was not an accomplished musician. Never mind that I had never played in public, preferring an empty room with only a close family member near by. But with the help of Dan Coates, who had published many easy-to-intermediate level sheet music collections, I had been banging away on the ivories with happy abandon for years. Just a week before, I had bravely played for a friend while she perused my ridiculously large stack of sheet music that dated back to my sister’s lessons in the 1950s. Her praise regarding my playing gave me the needed boost of confidence. After a couple of run-through with the music on my piano, I called Jonathan back and told him I would give it a try.

The Way To Carnegie Hall
The next day, with a couple more of hours of practice under my belt, I met with the Shopiros and we practiced together. “Do you think we can do this?” I asked Jonathan and Susan.

Yes, we can do this!” they reassured me. 

As I was already having three people for Rosh Hashanah, I extended an invitation to the Shopiros as well. Over the next 24 hours—before the scheduled 7 p.m. Sunday service, I practiced my parts in between preparing a holiday dinner: chicken, potatoes, green beans, fresh challah, and my chocolate chip cookies.

Larry stepped right up to the task as well, serving as my last-minute sous chef, table setter, pot washer, and last minute supermarket runner.

Larry and I met the Shopiros an hour before services for one last practice session. Due to some health concerns, Susan was unable to play the violin, but she would be the lead vocalist as needed. Thanks to Jonathan’s expertise and great job of covering up my mistakes, we left that evening feeling that, while no one would mistake us for professionals, we had contributed to, and enhanced the service. 

Monday morning’s “performance” went even smoother. I had gained confidence. I was—after all— not exactly playing Chopin’s “Etude in G Sharp minor.” I was playing a melody line in easy keys, Jonathan played harmony on the flute; the congregation readily sang along. It was—for this reluctant recitalist—pure joy. 

That afternoon, as seven of us sat around our dining room table, Larry made a toast to my “first and last” public piano performance. 

Or maybe not…

Jonathan would love to continue contributing his talents to future services. I certainly won’t mind accompanying him  on a couple of songs, especially my personal favorite,  the “Mi Shebeirach” prayer. 

These fingers are just itching for another try. 

Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. A second compilation of her articles printed in The Jewish World has been published. Tikkun Olam now joins There Goes My Heart. She recently published Fradel’s Story, a compilation of stories by her mother that she edited. Shapiro’s blog is